Michael Kaiser And the Quest For a New Global Theater
Kennedy Center Chief Helps A Ramallah Troupe Facing Some Very Real Roadblocks

By Noga Tarnopolsky
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 22, 2007; C01

RAMALLAH, West Bank — One weekend earlier this month, Michael Kaiser, the Kennedy Center's workaholic president ("it doesn't matter where I am, I am always at work"), flew briefly to Michigan to visit his sister, who had been unwell, then turned around and flew, via Newark, to Tel Aviv. From there, he made his way to Ramallah, where he stood, like so many other American emissaries, in a tidy suit and tie, foreign but at ease, on a sidewalk amid the dust and bustle.

Kaiser, the turnaround virtuoso who rescued from financial ruin the Kansas City Ballet, the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater Foundation, American Ballet Theatre and, before coming to the Kennedy Center, London's Royal Opera House, has developed an almost messianic urge to teach the art of arts management to struggling cultural institutions around the globe.

"I am very anxious that the cultural ecologies of the countries of the world be healthy," he says. He sees the Kennedy Center as "the national cultural center" and as such, believes it has both national and international responsibilities. Among the other initiatives undertaken during his tenure, which began in 2001, Kaiser has established the Kennedy Center Arts Management Institute, which provides advanced training for young arts administrators. He's also set up the Capacity Building Program for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations, which offers mentoring services to the leaders of 35 African American, Latino, Asian American and Native American arts groups from across the United States.

It is this compulsion (plus a major Kennedy Center festival of the arts of Arab lands, planned for early 2009) that took him last March to a Kennedy Center-sponsored symposium in Cairo at which he presented a workshop to 140 arts administrators from 17 Arab nations.

"One thing we learned," he says, laughing lightly, "is that not all Arabs like each other that much."

Kaiser's spiel to foreigners includes an admission that most countries get their fill of American culture, be it through TV, movies, popular music or computer games. It also includes a brief history lesson: "The Puritans founded the United States, and they were not big fans of the performing arts, so we never had central government support, and we've had to develop alternate sources. That kind of expertise is something we can export."

What kind of expertise is he talking about applying overseas? One example: During his brief tenure at the Royal Opera, he raised $100 million in 18 months, thus delivering the dangerously debilitated institution a robust future.

At the Cairo symposium, George Ibrahim, the director of Ramallah's Al-Kasaba Theater and Cinematheque, posed a challenge. Kaiser recalls: "George is very sophisticated and stood out among the group. He challenged me: 'How much of this do you really think can work in Palestine? I would like you to come and see our reality.' And I said, 'Fine, I'll come.' I'm not sure he believed me."

He should have. When Kaiser accepted Ibrahim's dare, he was simultaneously involved with major long-term projects in China and Mexico, planning a Latin American symposium in Buenos Aires for next April, and continuing to consult for any number of arts institutions, including South Africa's Market Theatre (not to mention the Arab arts festival, which will bring artists from 22 nations to the Kennedy Center). So it was that on a recent Saturday morning, Ibrahim, a genial, barrel-bellied actor, scriptwriter, translator and theatrical impresario, picked Kaiser up at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport and drove him the short geographical distance and long conceptual voyage to Ramallah, the cultural capital of the Palestinian territories.

The day before had been spent getting to know the landscape, both human and topographic. Kaiser was driven around the town, so that he could get to know the place. He met with a number of arts leaders to learn about the challenges they face.

Ramallah is a low-slung desert city sprawling over innumerable soft hills and valleys, flooded with light. If anything, it resembles Jerusalem, its neighbor about nine miles to the south: Jeans-clad men amble its dusty streets with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, hot roasted peanuts are sold from carts in huge piles, and schoolgirls in uniforms and hair-coverings march obediently behind their teachers. A majority Christian city, it is both traditionalist and ready for change. Most of the few women seen in the downtown crowds are covered by headscarves, but the Ramallah city council recently voted a Christian, Janet Michael, as its first female mayor.

Kaiser held individual assessment sessions on Saturday with almost everyone associated with Al-Kasaba, from actors through administrators to members of the board, each for about 45 minutes. The sessions were all in English. By the end of the day, he had four pages of densely and methodically scribbled notes. One example, "Why only 1,000 people on e-mail list?"

"E-mail is an obvious, cheap way of reaching people — 500 or 600 people come to this theater most nights; there is no reason you can't raffle off a dinner at the restaurant to people who fill out their e-mail address and get this list up to maybe 10,000 people with very little effort," he said before adding: "But look, I've been here 24 hours. I barely know the place."

Al-Kasaba was founded in June 2000, as an offshoot of a theater troupe that had its roots in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, when Ibrahim was an Israeli superstar: At age 21, he was Sammy in "Sammy and Susu," a pioneering children's TV program that drew universal devotion from both Arabic and Hebrew speakers.

Today, Al-Kasaba is at once a remarkable success and a struggling enterprise. In addition to offering original works in Arabic, created for the theater, and foreign plays that have been translated and adapted, it contains the only regularly functioning cinema in all the Palestinian territories (four film screenings a day, with films ranging from popular Egyptian blockbusters to refined international fare), a fashionable restaurant and a pub distinguished by a sensual, undulating wooden bar laden with bottles.

But Al-Kasaba faces problems both specific and universal. Specifically, roadblocks prevent much of its West Bank audience from attending events; the Palestinian economy suffers from an endemic lack of predictability; political events can override any cultural ambition; and theater is not an integral part of local culture. And, as is true in more and more countries, it is also more and more difficult to get people out of the house. Potential audiences prefer the laze of cyber-surfing, cable, rental DVDs and living room music systems.

To add to the challenges, Ibrahim wants to open a theater arts school. In fact, he wants to double Al-Kasaba's expenses in the next three years, an ambition not necessarily shared by the many international and few local organizations that fund most of his projects.

Ibrahim and Kaiser cemented a long-term relationship during the visit. The Kennedy Center and Al-Kasaba will co-produce a work for young people and the theater will be part of the Arab Festival in two years. Kaiser will consult with Ibrahim, especially on the fundraising.

Ibrahim says he wants to bring Al-Kasaba, eventually, to a point where the artists can think only about art and not "about paying the rent and the bills and whether or not we can survive next year." To this end, before Ibrahim's encounter with Kaiser, Al-Kasaba already was working on a long-term strategic plan.

One of the things Kaiser said when he sat down with the assembled staff at Al-Kasaba on Sunday, at the workshop/meeting called for 10 a.m., was that the goal is "great art well marketed."

"Very few arts organizations are as professional and sophisticated as this organization — you are very impressive in the quality of your work, in the knowledge of staff about your areas. This is one of the things I am concerned about for Palestine and frankly for most countries.

"I'm interested in role-model organizations — I'd like to see your excellent organization become a role model, organizationally and artistically, not just for Palestine, but for much of this part of the world. You've got a great product, wonderful art. Believe me, this is not something I can say at many of the places I visit. But the marketing is so episodic! And you've got no one doing press. No one! How can anyone know what you are doing? I mean, oy." His head fell briefly to his hands.

If Kaiser is the prophet of well-run arts organizations as harbingers of national renaissance, it is, he says, a homage to Barney Simon, the founder of Johannesburg's Market Theatre, whom he met in late 1994 when he was a New York-based consultant to arts organizations.

"The Rockefeller Foundation asked me to travel to South Africa for three weeks, and just as I was reading a New York Times article about Barney Simon, Barney Simon called on the phone. The only time we could meet was midnight the next day. We ended up talking until 4 in the morning."

Simon died in 1995, but the Market Theatre has become one of new South Africa's showcase cultural jewels. Kaiser came to believe in art as a form of human liberation. "Art is really one of the only ways people can get to know each other," he says. "You don't get to know anyone through reading about politics. You get to know someone through learning about what worries him, what he finds beautiful. When I brought the Baghdad Symphony Orchestra to the Kennedy Center, most people said simply that they did not know Iraq had a symphony."

"Michael Kaiser is a dynamic and impressive leader for the Kennedy Center," says Sen. Edward Kennedy, who sits on the organization's board. "He is also a tireless advocate for broadening worldwide understanding of the important role that the arts have in all of our lives. He is a truly wonderful ambassador for the arts and for America."

Late Sunday night, after dinner, Ibrahim ferried Kaiser back to Tel Aviv for a few hours repose before a dawn flight back to Washington.

And that is a weekend in the life of Michael Kaiser.